Dune and dusted: After a dip, Brady McArdle leads Paparazzi Dreamer on the beach at Dromana while Holy Ripe is cherry ripe for the photographer.
PICTURES \ SHANNON MORRIS
Mid-morning and I am at John McArdle’s stables at Mornington. Or, if you’ve been up since 3am as McArdle is every week day, it’s much later than that. But he’s still got the energy to show me the 27 horses here and tell me about the one that got away.
In 2008, McArdle was the underbidder (at $105,000) for a well-bred colt who sold at the yearling sales for $110,000. That colt was named So You Think and went on to win two Cox Plates before being sold in 2010 to an international breeding giant in a deal that valued the horse at about $60 million.
But in racing there’s always another story. In 2002, McArdle bought a horse called Hollow Bullet for $10,000 and syndicated to friends for $1500 each. The horse won about $1.5 million and was sold in 2006 for $1.3 million.
It’s the ups and downs of the game and McArdle, 40, has been in it long enough to still be smiling, and to know that the next champion might be in front of his eyes.
But making champions is hard work. On the eve of the spring carnival, and with McArdle’s stables near the beach in Mornington, we’ve visited to ask him about working horses in the sea. This form of training has always made beautiful photographs – and it’s super cute when they roll in the sand – but what is the real benefit to the horses?
McArdle takes horses to the beach most days when weather permits. “I think footballers poached it from us,” he says. “They get to the saltwater, which has very good recovery properties. It’s also quite cool. At this time of year the water is cold so it’s like icing them.
“It’s something different for them, something different from running around in a circle every day. Footballers don’t run laps every day. As much as it is very good for horses with bad knees, it’s general recovery from racing and galloping, it’s also a mental stimulant.”
For the horses it’s a much-needed change of environment. “It’s not unusual to see dolphins,’’ McArdle says. “The horse’s reaction when they see them initially is fright, but once they’ve seen them a few times they like to see them. They see the boats and other people. It’s a different surrounding.
“Some of the nervy ones do get nervous. It’s actually quite incredible to watch them. Once they get in there – we take them down in groups – and their mates get in there, they think, ‘This is all right’ and it feels nice and cool on their legs and it’s nice and relaxing. It’s just a nice day out for them.”
At the beach there are variables that the trainers don’t see at the stables. “Had one stand on a flounder and threw me in the water,” McArdle says. “We’ve gone down there and it’s been a bit choppy and the weather changes while you’re down there and the waves start to come in. We had one horse, Danger Looms, a very good colt, he loved it, he used to let the waves crash over the top of him and his rider used to get knocked off every now and then. He would actually go for the waves. He would fortunately walk in with the waves and let us catch him.
“At Safety Beach it gets rougher than you think. We take the horses out chest deep in water so it doesn’t take much of a wave to come over the top of the horse.”
Swimming is an important part of a horse’s training in a pool and at the beach, the benefits of which McArdle first saw on the beaches around his home town Warrnambool. ”(At Warrnambool) we used to lead horses off the back of a row boat and we’d row around the breakwater and they’d swim behind us,’’ he says.
‘’We’ve had one get loose and sort of swim out a bit and you think ‘Erggh’. But it turns around and comes back. They’re usually pretty intelligent. They know where they came in, so they come back.”
One training technique is for the horses to trot in the water. “It’s very good aerobic work,” McArdle says. “It’s low impact so it’s not putting pressure on their legs. But imagine standing chest deep in water and jogging, the resistance work is very, very strong for a horse where all of their mass is above their knees, so to lift their little legs out of deep water, it’s very solid on them.”
Some sprinting horses (as opposed to stayers) don’t deal with the regular work. “Wildly was a very fast sprinter who didn’t cope with work, so we used to take him to the beach every day.
“Every second day I’d put him chest deep in water and he’d trot for about 500 metres in the water, then he’d walk back for a kilometre, then he’d trot another 500 metres and then we’d give him a roll (in the sand). And that was his work, that’s all he’d do.
“It suited him. We worked out he had a very great aerobic capacity but he didn’t cope with work. He was naturally fit, so we didn’t have to work him, so we just swum him all the time. He loved it.”
McArdle grew up on a cattle farm outside Warrnambool with a passion for horses. He was eight when he first climbed aboard one. At 16 he came to Melbourne to work for trainer John Sadler. He later worked as trainer Lee Freedman’s foreman based at Caulfield.
When Freedman moved his operation to Rye, Freedman asked McArdle to go with him. McArdle and his wife Bernadette bought a house in Rye. In 2003, he and business partner Brent Clayton started Redgum Racing and moved to Mornington four years ago.
The stable can hold 40 horses but McArdle likes to keep numbers down. “I’m very much a hands-on trainer so I like to be able to know each individual horse,” he says.
Of the 27 in work on the day we visit 13 are two-year-olds and still to race, and seven are unraced or have had one or two starts.
“We train a lot of young horses. We’ve got a good record with two-year-olds. I’m probably like the Greater Western Sydney or Gold Coast (in the AFL). A lot of young players who show potential but until they do it, you don’t know.”
The variables with horses, as with humans, are endless. “People say ‘Why did it do this?’ And I’ll say ‘Sometimes they just have a bad day’. Equine athletes can have bad days like human athletes. Even the great ones. Black Caviar had a bad day in England, but she’s that good that she
still beat them. My wife looked after Maykbe Diva and she had bad days.”
He says that an ‘‘entire’’ (a male horse not gelded, so a colt or stallion) can have high testosterone levels, which will affect their behaviour. “They’re an aggressive animal by nature because they protect their herd and they can be a little more temperamental. They have different personalities. You have quiet ones, you have bouncy boisterous ones, you have ones that are nasty, ones that are very kind.”
The life of a trainer is hard work. “I’m here just before four every morning. I leave between 9am and midday, back at 1.30, here till 5pm. If you don’t live it, don’t do it. There’s a very high burn-out rate. I’ve had in nine years as a horse trainer 3½ weeks holiday. I’m awake 4am on my holiday and I ring back here to make sure everything’s OK.
“I love being around horses. Most horse trainers are the same. You’re sort of born into it. Most of us have grown up in it. If you don’t have a passion for it, you won’t last. In the middle of winter I’m out of bed just after three. Sundays, I get a sleep-in, I get up at five.”
There are several reasons for the early start. “The track opens at 4am and we want to be the first ones on, to get the best use of it. We have to be off the track for the staff preparing the track from 9am.
“We work them early in the morning because it’s cooler. The reason we still do that in winter (as well) is because they’re a creature of habit.”
In his long drives to race events – the day before we met he did an eight-hour round trip to Stawell to watch one of his charges – McArdle has a lot of thinking time, which he uses to fine-tune his training techniques. “When I’m walking my dogs you do think ‘Can they win that race?’ I think about them constantly. We do a lot of driving to the race meetings. You do think, ‘Am I doing the right thing with that one? What can I do differently with that one? Will a gear change work? Should riding tactics change?’ That’s probably what keeps most horse trainers awake while they’re driving those long hours.”
Bernadette worked for a year as a strapper for the champion three-time Melbourne Cup winner Makybe Diva. “She led her in, in her second Cup, the first one for the Freedmans. It comes with a bit of pressure. She had to make sure her legs were right. It was a great experience working with one of the greats, something she’ll never forget.”
Redgum has two three-year-olds with a chance at spring carnival glory. Arrised, a colt, will be nominated for the Derby and She’s Streets Ahead, a filly, will aim towards the Oaks.
Maybe all those days at the beach are about to pay off.